The last work of the period to be considered offers a second alternative to the mindless destiny of the Glencairn crew. If will leads to disaster, what of hope, which may or may not lead beyond awareness to action? In his story Tomorrow, O’Neill makes a tentative, further exploration of what he had touched on in the ending of The Personal Equation and of what will prove in The Iceman Cometh to be a major tragic theme.
James Anderson, the story’s central figure, is identical to James Cameron, the “Jimmy Tomorrow” of The Iceman Cometh. Like Cameron, Anderson lives in expectation of a return to respectability—always to happen tomorrow. He has been a newspaper correspondent in South Africa, and hopes through the assistance of a friend to return to his job as a reporter. The job becomes available, he spruces himself for the effort, finds he cannot write and returning to “Tommy the Priest’s,” the saloon in which he lives, he throws himself from the window of his room.
Many of the elements distributed among the characters of The lceman Cometh are to be seen in Anderson’s background and character, and the story also contains a number of autobiographical elements. The central figure is based on James Byth, once a press agent of O’Neill’s father’s, who had roomed next to O’Neill at Jimmy the Priest’s. Byth, a former Boer war correspondent, killed himself as the fictional Jimmy did.22 In the story, a seaman named Lyons, reminiscent of Driscoll in the Glencairn plays, provides a strongminded contrast to the ineffectual hero. The narrator, Art, is evidently modeled on O’Neill himself. A canceled passage from the manuscript of the story reads in part, “I don’t expect you to believe it. You know that I write plays and you’ll lay it to my innate sense of the dramatic. But it is true—as true as I’m sitting here boring you with my yarns.” In the body of the story, the narrator mentions ironically that he has written a play about Belshazzar’s Feast and the Fall of Babylon in seven acts and blank verse—evidently a reference to O’Neill’s work on the same subject at Harvard. The manuscript also contains a canceled introduction describing life at “Tommy the Priest’s” and makes reference to the narrator’s days as a sailor.
Although the story
and characters are autobiographical, the theme of Tomorrow
may well have been suggested by the writer whose work had already
proved a fruitful source to O’Neill, Joseph Conrad. In 1903, Conrad
had published a story called by the same title as O’Neill’s, and,
in 1905, had dramatized it as One
Day More. The play was not published until 1926, but it is
probable that O’Neill knew the story, which appeared in the volume Typhoon
and Other Stories.
Conrad’s tale is of old Captain Hagberd, a former coastal skipper, who waits in hope that Harry, his son who has run away to sea as a boy, will return and live again with him on the land. The Captain’s desire to see his son again has reached the point of obsession: he has contracted, in Conrad’s phrase, “the disease of hope,” which forces him never to think of the future in any other terms but tomorrow, when the son will surely come. Living for “tomorrow” distorts the future and obliterates the present: “It’s always tomorrow . . . without any sort of today.”23 Inevitably, when the son appears, the father rejects the fact that tomorrow has come and refuses to acknowledge him. The son leaves, and the old man is left in an “everlasting tomorrow.”
Here, in a different narrative, is the essence of O’Neill’s short story and of much more that he wrote when he turned his attention to those who seek to live by trusting to “hopeless hope.” His imitation of Conrad’s story was not circumstantially so close as was his imitation of The Nigger of the Narcissus in Bound East for Cardiff, but again O’Neill appears to have found in Conrad the essential definition of a problem that his own experience could verify in other terms. Conrad enabled O’Neill to see Anderson, as he had enabled him to see the Glencairn crew, in a wider perspective that gave the characters more than anecdotal significance.
O’Neill’s story is an interesting and able work in its own right. Its point of view toward its destitute protagonist is kindly, but it is saved by the narrator’s irony from sentimentality or trickery in its narrative style. In the manuscript version, immediately after Jimmy’s suicide, a message arrives stating that Jimmy has just inherited £20,000. The episode, wisely, was deleted in the published version, in favor of an ending in which the drunks, having heard the sound of the fall, enter the courtyard and discover Jimmy’s body. O’Neill ended his story simply: “The sky was pale with the light of dawn. Tomorrow had come.”*
In later elaborations of the theme, O’Neill would continue to be concerned with the plight of will-less men, living in listless inaction, suspended in time. As if they were at the bottom of the sea, their days are spent in a crepuscular eternity. Sometimes, memory Stirs, and when it does, a semblance of consciousness returns. Man is roused from death-in-life and he regains for a moment the sense of human identity, if only in his awareness of his pain. Then, hope for tomorrow offers some small remedy for the pain, even though hope is delusion, never to be brought to the test of reality. In the destinate scheme of life in which O’Neill’s characters move, hope without action is in some measure the opposite of such acts of will as that of Captain Keeney. Yet when hope is coupled with action, like will it becomes a destroyer. At this stage in his thought, O’Neill can say only that if man is to survive he must accept without thinking the endless inevitable drift. Any attempt to escape brings death on the verge of tomorrow.
* Sheaffer (382) notes that in accepting the story, Waldo Frank, an editor for the Seven Arts, which published the story in June, 1917, asked for the Correction of “a few minor imperfections.” The trick ending, presumably, was one of them.
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